This panel representing the Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist is one of a small group of works which preserve a lost composition by Leonardo da Vinci. The delicate and subtle painting technique closely approximates Leonardo's sfumato, so that the surfaces and outlines seem enveloped in a softening haze. The picture is also inspired by a number of the great master's motifs, such as the widespread arms of Mary, which most obviously recall the Virgin in the two famous Virgin of the Rocks pictures (Louvre, Paris, inv. 777; and National Gallery, London, inv. NG 1093). A drawing by Leonardo in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 17.142.1) and a second in the Royal Collection, Windsor (inv. RL 12560) show the master exploring this pose, and three sketches in the Royal Collection, London and the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, respectively, show a similar motif of the Christ child embracing the lamb. It has been suggested that Leonardo began developing the pose for the Virgin in the mid-1480s in preparation for the Paris Virgin of the Rocks, while the sketches exploring the motif of the Christ child probably date to the first years of the 16th century, and are likely to have been studies for the Saint Anne in the Louvre, Paris (inv. 776; see V. Delieuvin, Saint Anne: Leonardo da Vinci's Ultimate Masterpiece, exhibition catalogue, Paris, 2012, p. 256).
In addition to the present work, few painted versions of the composition are known: a picture at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (first published by Wilhelm Suida when it was in the Henry Harris collection, London); a second at the Château de Flers, Villeneuve-d'Ascq; a tondo in the Gallarati Scotti collection, Milan (formerly attributed to Cesare da Sesto); and a picture variously attributed to Leonardo's Spanish followers Fernando Llanos and Fernanrdo Yáñez de la Almedina in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (inv. 1890 n. 1335), probably the best-known of the group. The latter work was shown in Paris at the Louvre's 2012 exhibition Saint Anne: Leonardo da Vinci's Ultimate Masterpiece. In the catalogue, Vincent Delieuvin discusses the various treatments of the composition, arguing that there was indeed 'a famous original by Leonardo that has now been lost', and suggesting that the surviving versions all probably date to the first decade of the 16th century (loc. cit.). Indeed, the present work, painted on poplar and clearly of Italian origin, seems to have been executed by an artist in Leonardo's immediate circle in the years just after 1500.
The head of the Madonna recalls that in a drawing of c. 1475-1480 by Leonardo, preserved in the Gabinetto dei disegni e stampi in the Uffizi, Florence (inv. 428 E).